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Sequels that exceed expectations

Writing a sequel can be a daunting experience, whether it’s a novel, for TV, film, radio or whatever. The biggest pitfall, I think, is that you’ve already set the audience’s expectation. They know your main character. They know his or her strengths and weaknesses. They have so many pre-conceptions, many of the them probably well-founded, and a lot probably entirely erroneous. But you need to somehow meet those expectations in the sequel to keep them satisfied. You need to understand what your audience wants to see.

In fact, it’s even more than that if you want the sequel to really stand out. You have to exceed their expectations. Because the problem is, if you only show them what they expect, what they already know, then there’s not much in it for the audience really. Why would they bother giving you their time at all?

So just how do you exceed the audience expectation of who your character is? How do you surpass the first novel or film in the series?

When I sat back and thought about this conundrum, the unfortunate truth is that, far too often, the sequel simply doesn’t reach that level. In fact, often it falls way short of the mark set by the original. There are myriad reasons why that could be the case, but the most common mistake is in not trying something new. Sticking to the same old formula just isn’t ever going to set the world alight, even if it does keep things ticking long nicely. I’m sure it has worked in many cases and readers and writers alike do fall into a comfort zone where they’re happy knowing exactly what they're are going to get. With my own writing, I’ve tried to take things a step further than that, though. I set out with each and every book to surpass the previous one in terms of excitement, intrigue and suspense. Ultimately it’s up to the audience to determine whether I’ve succeeded in that, but it’s my aim at least.

I thought long and hard before writing this post of the best sequels I’ve read and watched and tried to analyse what it was that made them so successful. A big difference I noted was in how book series quite often stretch out indefinitely, while in film it seems much harder to cement momentum and loyalty. Think about some of the best known book series in the thriller genre, such as Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, which will soon see release of the 20th book, or Peter James’s Roy Grace series, which is similarly now into double figures and still topping the charts each time a new instalment hits the shops. I can’t think of any film series, with the exception of the rather unique James Bond, that has sustained such longevity and success. In fact, it’s notable that the Reacher series has seen just one book translated to screen so far despite the phenomenal success of the books. For whatever reason, film audiences I feel are always on the lookout for something fresh and new and different to what they saw the last time. That said, there are a handful of standout sequels on film, some of which were adapted from books, and each of them has something unique about, and in many ways, they share certain similarities.

One of my favourite all time sequels is the Godfather Part II. It’s consistently ranked as one of the finest films of all times, thanks in large part to stand-out performances by both Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. But the screenplay itself was the real driving force behind it’s success. And even though it was the young Vito Corleone, played by De Niro, that got many critics drooling, I actually think a lot of the power of the movie comes from the transformation we see in Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone. In the first movie he’s a young man, someone who’s unsure of himself and torn about becoming involved in his family’s criminal lifestyle. By the end of the first instalment, those doubts have fallen by the wayside and he’s well and truly part of the mob. That opens the door in the second book to really explore a more ominous side and we see quite a different man emerge.

Likewise, you notice a change in Bruce Wayne and Batman in the recently rebooted Batman trilogy. In the Dark Knight, which again was considered by many to be a better film than Batman Begins, we see a much darker and more brooding performance from the caped crusader as Gotham turns against its hero.

Finally, coming closer to my heart and the books that I’ve written is the Bourne Supremacy. Both the books and the films are amongst my favourite, but it was the second instalment that really captured me. Again, having been introduced to Bourne previously, in Supremacy we see a new, more po-faced and in many cases an angrier Bourne. One who’s not just fighting to find out who he is but who’s intent on making those who have turned against him pay. It’s the revenge-fuelled Bourne that I really liked and many have commented that it was the second Bourne film in particular that put pressure on the Bond franchise to remould itself into a fresher and grittier series with the excellent Casino Royale subsequently doing just that.

All of this wasn’t something I thought about at that time of writing the books, but with hindsight I can see similar themes running through my own work. In Dance with the Enemy the reader is introduced to Carl Logan. You get a glimpse of his disturbed and painful past and what made him the man he is. The story is one of love, revenge and betrayal. In the second book, Rise of the Enemy, I kept each of those themes going. But I knew I needed to show more of Logan too. I needed the reader to see not necessarily another side of him, but just a deeper understanding of who he is and why. Rise is written in the first person and as a writer, I felt that was the perfect way for me to explore Logan in more depth, to show the reader just how fragile and vulnerable he is, but also how desperate and single-minded he becomes when the world turns against him. This is a man on a mission to save his skin at all costs. In the third book, Hunt for the Enemy, which is to be released soon, I take another twist on Logan, revealing much more about his troubled past through flashbacks, all the while letting the reader further into Logan’s troubled world as he fights for survival and to get back at those who have wronged him.

So there you have it. That’s my thoughts on how to write a sequel. Basically, don’t just re-hash the same plot and characters. Show the audience something different. A new take on the main character, a different side to them (darker and grittier seems to work!). Excite them, thrill them and do something that will blow their damn socks off.

This blog post was originally conceived for Author Nicki Robson's blog. See the original post here.

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